Even as patients, medical professionals and advocacy organizations work to break down policy barriers in health care access, the biggest barrier of all is often one that comes from inside: fear of social stigma.
Medical conditions like gout, overactive bladder, obesity and mental illness can be difficult to talk about under any circumstances – let alone in the context of one’s own symptoms. Many patients still face not only vulnerability or embarrassment, but outright discrimination for discussing certain conditions.
The pernicious power of this stigma can make routine inconveniences like finding doctors, scheduling appointments and navigating coverage with insurance companies seem like insurmountable obstacles. That’s a big part of why so many patients with stigmatized conditions – for example, roughly half of those enduring mental health struggles – never seek treatment.
Strength in Numbers
But foregoing or even delaying care only leads to more serious health risks. While stigma threatens embarrassment, untreated conditions can threaten lives. Millions of Americans of every age, race and gender suffer from stigmatized conditions – conditions for which there are treatments, even cures.
There is strength to be found in those numbers – and in the resources that patients, their families and physicians have created to help overcome stigma.
Ultimately, though, the only way to help all patients overcome stigmatized conditions is to eradicate the stigmas in the first place.
Improving public policy and medical protocols can open doors for patients, but they can’t make anyone walk through them. It’s up to everyone to do their part to end the epidemic of medical stigma, encourage all patients get the care they need and deserve and recognize honest vulnerability as a strength instead of a weakness.